Blogger Relations #Fail: ConAgra Cooks Up a PR Disaster

ConAgra and Ketchum PR need a lesson in social media and blogger relations: their dinner invitation (pictured) promised a meal cooked by a celebrity chef, but guests were served frozen supermarket food instead.
The invitation promised a dinner "hosted by TLC chef George Duran" for the food blogger and a guest.

ConAgra, along with their agency Ketchum, is the culprit in the latest self-inflicted PR blunder, breaking every basic rule of social media and blogger relations to create a public embarrassment for themselves.  “Bloggers Decry ConAgra’s Bait-And-Switch At Underground Dinner” is the headline from Huffington Post’s coverage of the incident,  in which groups of bloggers were invited to enjoy an intimate dinner cooked by a celebrity chef–only to find out they had been served Marie Callender brand frozen pizza and dessert.

Somehow, the marketer seemed to think that food bloggers, many of whom advocate fresh, organic, healthy eating, would not be able to tell the difference between “frozen muck” and freshly prepared food.  And that, after finding out they’d been duped, they would cheerfully tell their readers about how they fell for the stunt and advise them to go buy processed frozen foods for themselves?

As the backlash intensified, ConAgra cancelled the final event and promised not to use the hidden camera footage from the dinner for promotional purposes.

Making matters worse, Ketchum’s apology for the fiasco is less sorry and more patronizing:   “a high percentage of people…actually appreciated the event,”  Jackie Burton, director of corporate communications at Ketchum told the New York Times. “But we also understand that there were people who were disappointed and we’re sorry — we apologize that they felt that way.”  You’re sorry that they felt that way?

ConAgra learns about social media and blogger relations the hard way after serving food bloggers frozen lasagna instead of a chef-prepared meal.
Instead of a meal freshly-prepared by celebrity chef George Duran, food bloggers were served Marie Callender's frozen lasagna.

If you tell your dinner guests their meal will be cooked by a celebrity chef and then instead serve them a high-sodium, chemical-laden entree and dessert, you have lied to them.  You have also insulted them as food critics by implying that they would not be able to tell the difference between an industrially-cooked frozen meal and a freshly-prepared dinner.  And if you disregard your guests’ explicitly stated preferences for fresh, organic, unprocessed foods to serve them the exact opposite, you are disrespectful and, in the case of the guest with allergies to food coloring, dangerously reckless.

You should do more than apologize to the bloggers you invited for how they feel, you should apologize for lying to them, insulting them and for being disrespectful.  And for embarrassing them in front of the guests they invited along.

But wait, the story gets even worse.  The New York Times called a number of PR experts for comment, including Deborah A. Silverman, who heads the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards at the Public Relations Society of America.  Here’s what she told the reporter:   “Ketchum has an excellent reputation for high ethical standards,” but “the social media realm (including bloggers) is new territory for public relations practitioners, and I view this as a valuable learning opportunity.”

Bold-face emphasis is mine.

If you work with a PR agency, you should immediately ask them whether social media and working with bloggers is new territory for them.  If they hesitate even one second, you need a new PR agency.

And, if the people at Ketchum want to learn about some of the basic tenets of blogger relations, here are some great blog posts written in 2006.

They could also spend some time reading the YouTube comments on this 2008 Pizza Hut commercial, which used a similar bait-and-switch gimmick to introduce its line of pastas.   (“I HATE THESE COMMERCIALS SO MUCH!” is one of the nicer comments.)  These are comments from real potential customers, and they make the food bloggers’ “disappointment” look mild by comparison.

Here’s a press release for you:  all of your customers are now bloggers, with the ability to tell the whole world what they think with just a few taps on their smartphone.  So you’d better start reading up on “blogger relations.”

Then again, if you think I’m setting the bar too high, you can let me know in the comments!

UPDATE:  Bob LeDrew at Translucid Communications has some additional comments from the PRSA in his post on this story:  Social media is “new territory for PR,” sez PRSA. BS, sez me.